November 07, 2013 11 Reactions

‘Great Story, But Did You Check That Fact?’

By , under Make it Work. Susan Johnston has written for AOL Jobs, The Boston Globe, Mediabistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places.

You finish a big magazine feature, hit send, and heave a big sigh of relief that it’s now off your plate.

Not so fast! Before you can collect your check and share the published article with your friends, get ready to send your research to the fact-checking department and answer their questions.

Nowadays, not all publications have fact-checkers to review your work for errors, so that puts the onus on the writer to get it right the first time or risk making an embarrassing mistake.

Errors happen even at top-tier publications like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. But checking your work carefully and documenting each fact can help you avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons. A recent mix-up in a story about edible mushrooms caused Arizona Highways magazine to pull the October issue from newsstands when the magazine discovered one of the featured mushrooms had psychotropic effects.

“It’s caused a giant uproar, even getting international press,” said Lori Baker, a freelancer and former research editor for the magazine (she did not fact-check the mushroom issue as she had already left the publication).

Here’s how to avoid slip-ups and ensure that your article sails through the fact-checking process.

Vet your sources carefully

Just because someone responds to your HARO query or claims to have published a book on your topic doesn’t mean they’re a credible expert.

Emily Paulsen, a DC-area freelancer who specializes in health topics, suggests Googling a source’s name before scheduling an interview.

“This not only helps ensure you’ve got the name and title correct, it can save you from embarrassment,” Paulsen said.

When she was working on a 20,000-word manuscript about work-life balance, Paulsen edited out a physician quoted in the manuscript after a Google search revealed the source was under indictment for alleged illegal prescriptions and other ethics violations.

If a source has been quoted extensively on a wide range of topics, you might rethink how knowledgeable that source really is and whether they’re just trying to stroke their own ego. No one is an expert at everything.

Don’t rely on the web

One of the most common mistakes writers make, according to Baker, is assuming that information online is current and accurate.

“Businesses may leave a website up even thought they’ve closed long ago,” she said. A quick phone call could verify that the company is still open.

Events listings often live online indefinitely (sometimes without a year attached to them), so make sure an event is happening this year before including it in an article. Also check the date and the day of the week to avoid snarky comments from readers.

Use primary sources

Secondary sources, such as Wikipedia or blogs, are not reliable fact-checking sources. Cheryl Alkon, a freelance writer outside of Boston who has fact-checked for More magazine for more than a decade, said this one of her pet peeves. Go to the source to verify information.

“If you’re doing a science story, you should ideally you go to the original source,” she explained. “If The New England Journal of Medicine published the study, you can find the abstract and find out who the corresponding author is.”

Other journalists or bloggers may have misinterpreted a study or taken the results out of context, so get a copy of the original paper if you can. Some publications even require that writers file a copy of the paper with their research materials.

Avoid plagiarism

This seems like a no-brainer, but Baker says she’s uncovered instances of plagiarism while fact-checking a story online.

“The fact checker is very likely to turn that up,” she said. “Be ultra-cautious and make sure that whatever you write is original.”

Interestingly, a study of scientific researchers by plagiarism detection service iThenticate found that verbatim plagiarism was actually the least common type of plagiarism. Paraphrasing another work’s without attribution was the most common.

Follow the publication’s instructions

Different publications have different fact-checking processes. Some editors want writers to file an annotated draft (where each fact is sourced using footnotes or comments) and interview transcripts, while others simply want a list of source contact information and links to any online resources used. Some won’t quote the author of a self-published book or cite research funded by drug companies.

Research requirements may be spelled out in your contract or you may want to ask your editor before diving into the reporting. Either way, help the fact-checker do her job instead of getting defensive if she asks for additional information.

“I want as much as fact-checking information as possible,” Alkon said. “It makes the fact checker’s job so much easier, and the story can’t move forward until the fact-checker signs off on it.”

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